Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Artist Interview: Mike Shannon

Mike Shannon
grew up in Kitchener in Ontario, Canada, perfectly situated between Toronto and Detroit. From this vantage point, he was able to dive first hand into the burgeoning house and techno scenes of those two cities during the 90's. One can feel Mike's influences from this era in his production which always has an underlying funk beneath the electronic and digital sounds. Always on the move, Shannon also lived briefly in Chile, Spain and currently resides in Berlin, thus soaking global influences. Having earned his dues through these years DJing, producing and running his Cynosure label (since 1999) and later on teaming up with Jeff Milligan on the Revolver imprint (2001), last year saw Mike's full length Memory Tree (his 3rd) released on Richie Hawtin's coveted Plus 8 records. Deep Transmissions caught up with Mike via email to find out a bit more about his history, living and DJing in Berlin and what the future holds...

How did you first get interested in electronic dance music and what were some of your earliest influences club and musically speaking?

There was always a variety of music in my house when i grew up. So I had influences from Blues, Jazz and Soul from my parents and my brother was the source for the psychedelic Rock. There was always the odd Electronic record my mom would pick up. Thomas Dolby and Soft Cell were always my favorite things to put on when I was really young... I got into House music when I went to my first all ages club in Kitchener, ON and heard my best friends brother djing. He introduced me to hip house (Rob base & Dj EZ Roc - Fast Eddie) and from there I was searching out more records like this. Eventually discovering Techno.

I can feel a sense of soul and funk in your work that was probably influenced by your experiences in the Toronto and Detroit House and Techno scenes back in the day. Is that correct and is it something that consciously influences you to this day?
Absolutely, those influences scared me for life. I think it was a good combination of what I grew up listening to and being a part of those of both of those scenes. I think when I stop feeling those influences I'll stop making tracks.

How did Cynosure get started and what is its ethos?
Cynosure recordings was founded back in 1999. J.Hunsberger and I were members of a KW (Kitchener - Waterloo) based arts collective that had an mandate to promote the arts coming out of the area. So we came up with the idea of a record label that would encompass a majority of the artists involved in the project. We thought the project was an ideal one to promote the artists involved but the director of the federally funded collective didn't really like the music. So when it came time to pay for our first release our funding was rejected. Claiming that the idea would only benefit myself and didn't seem worthy of the investment. This was a big controversy at the time considering a number of people had worked on the project already. So we couldn't let the idea die there... we had to scrape together what we could and fund the label. And we've been rolling slowly but surely ever since.

What is the theme or concept behind your latest LP "Memory Tree"?
A Memory Tree is just other words that express the concept of an album. A collection of creative works that can identify or recall specific memories. I wanted to release a collection of tracks that all had a timeless quality to them. My goal was to write some tracks that wouldn't be forgotten after one play. A record that you could play on the dance floor years from now and still get the same feeling.

What was the working process like? eg. Did you already have a strong idea of the overall concept from the start and built songs from it?
To be honest I didn't have a grand vision that shaped everything. Things started to take form as the process was happening. Tracks were slowly changing and morphing with each other depending on the order of things. I really wanted to keep the album interesting enough but still having a strong sense of continuity and synergy... so there is a good variety of sound on the album but a distinct sound signature holds it all together.

Has being in Europe changed your approach to dance music both in terms of DJing and producing?
I think it's changed my approach to djing a little. I think I take things a little easier these days. I tend to let the records do the work a little more than I used to. Growing up as a dj in North America you really had to have some skills to set you apart from the others. When I first started djing everyone had access to basically the same records and the amount of music released was dramatically less than what exists today. So you really had to do something special with those mixes to make your mark. But over here it's really all about a consistency of good tracks. Building momentum with the selections. That's what's influenced my style a little these days. For Production I haven't noticed any change in approach due to being in Europe. I'm still doing more or less what I was doing before.

Both Spain and Germany have been hotbeds of dance music activity for the last while (eg. Sonar, Popkomm, Berghain, etc). Are there other gigs or countries you have been pleasantly surprised with that has been under the radar and are upcoming?
The City fox club called Alte Borse in Zurich is the best club in Europe at the moment. Nothing comes close to the sound of this club and the feeling of this club. Built in the old Stock market of Zurich the acoustic treatment of the room is intense. If every club in the world took this approach to acoustics we would all be ten times happier to go out to club and our ears would be so much better off. Zurich has the best all around quality of parties that I've experienced in Europe. Nothing really under the radar about Zurich for me but for some that haven't heard about the scene there it's time to see what I'm talking about.

What is your opinion of the current scene in Toronto and North America in general?
I just came back from a few dates in Canada and the US and I have to say not that much has changed in a few years. It's seems that the frequency of minimal house/techno club nights has grown in the States a little... from I can see mainly on the West coast... LA, San Fran. Toronto's Techno scene still seems like it's fledgeling along but I think the underground after hours scene is starting to rise up again. I checked out a couple of cool parties when I was back and played a good one too... so who knows?

Is it possible to stay in North America and be a successful DJ or producer?
Yes. But you have to have enough demand world wide to be able to jump over the pond from time to time. I think surviving on the North American Circuit alone is tuff for most. I think if I was to move back to Canada I would have a hard time keeping things on the same level as I have them now. There's just not enough worthwhile venues to go around and travel costs in North America aren't getting any cheaper.

Will vinyl always be a vital part of the release plan for Cynosure? How has the digital market changed the game?
Vinyl is an integrated part of the process. What I've noticed is when a label goes a 100% digital only it looses a sincere amount of momentum. It's as if the shelf presence of physical product that fuels digital sales somehow. So we'll keep Vinyl in the loop as long as this still applies.

What are things to watch out for in the near future from yourself and from Cynosure?
I'm starting to work on a new project with my studio partner Deadbeat and I've got a new release of my own coming out Wagon Repair and Circus Company for 2009. As for Cynosure, it's our ten year anniversary this year so the plan is deliver heat one after the other. We've got a new Adam Marshall EP coming out 2009 as well as new EP from Brett Johnson featuring a Chic Miniature remix, a new EP from one of the original Cyn producers Matt Thibideau and an EP from one of the original Montrealers Horror inc. aka Akufen. The tracks are all hot and most definitely an exciting line up of releases to start off the year.

Memory Tree is available here
Cynosure Recordings on Myspace

Monday, January 19, 2009

Artist Interview: Tokyo Black Star, Innervisions

To say that Alex Prat
is an international artist would be an understatement. Born in Paris, growing up in Tokyo (with a short stint in Bangkok) and now residing in New York, Alex is practically a world citizen. All of these experiences and influences are of course crucial to his sound when producing music (with partner Isao Kumano) under the Tokyo Black Star moniker. Theirs is a sound which I would call deep modern dance music: it could loosely be defined as house music, but it is obvious that they have many other influences. With their debut full length coming out on the Innervisions at the end of March (they also had the distinction of being Innervisions first release when it was still a sub-label of Sonar Kollektiv), we asked Alex a few questions about his interesting history, the Japanese scene and what to expect on the upcoming album.

DT: Let's start from the beginning. You were born in Paris, how did you get to Tokyo and now New York?

AP: I was born in Paris. I went to Tokyo when I was 4 years old with my family after living 2 years in Bangkok.

When and how did you first get interested in Club music?
I got interested in club music around the mid 80s through my dad and some friends at school in Tokyo before house music. I was listening then to American music through my Japanese friends and I was listening to all new European music through my french and European friends. I was into all kinds of stuff, top 40, the beginning of hip hop, new wave, funk, disco. I started to go to clubs from a very early age in Tokyo at around 14 years old thanks to my best friend Tommy.

Who were some of your early influences from this period.
All the hip hop and club music from NYC were huge in Japan at that time! It really influenced me. Sugar Hill records, Run DMC, Grandmaster Flash, Prelude records, all the US big disco funk hits. New wave was a big influence too, New Order, Factory records, Depeche Mode.

Who were some of the earlier influential Japanese DJs in the house scene?

The first real underground house club I went to was this club called "The Bank" in Roppongi. It changed my life! It was so different from all the other clubs. Some of the Japanese pioneers house/techno DJ played there: DJ Hiro, DJ Katsuya, DJ Wada. Living in Tokyo, I got influenced first of all by Japanese djs. Hiroshi Fujiwara, DJ Marbo, DJ Nori, DJ Heyta and Toru Takahashi who was the resident DJ at the legendary club GOLD in Tokyo in 1990.

With the lost (at least physically) of Dance Tracks, Vinylmania on one side and the lost of Cisco and Manhattan Records (not to mention the club Space Lab Yellow) on the other, are the New York and Tokyo club scenes still alive and well? How would you compare them?
The Tokyo club scene was very influenced originaly by the NYC club scene. They are still today very connected. Culturally and historically speaking, Japan has been very influenced by the US after the War. Japan became very Americanized. Black music has a real tradition in Japan too. Tokyo has always been very diverse and very open to all the trends from all around the world too especially when the economy was good in the 80s and early 90s. The Tokyo club scene is still very alive today, the club culture is still pretty strong, and the tradition and culture of the music are still there. Japanese people pay a lot of attention to traditions. Like everywhere in the world, the past couple of years, the Influences of music from Europe are big in Tokyo and in New York to a certain extent, we have seen a whole European wave, and the emergence of new cultures like lounge culture etc. Tokyo right now has lost a bit of its energy. It is a bit sad after Cisco and Yellow closed down. Commercialism and money changed everything in New York, the club scene is not the same anymore. There are still great things happening but it is very underground.

What made you decide to start DJing and producing?

I was fascinated by DJing from the very first times I started going to clubs. I started playing records with friends around 1989 in Tokyo at international school dance parties. We then started to organise our own little warehouse parties in different kind of rental spaces in Tokyo. I moved back to Paris for my university studies and met with the whole Paris scene which influenced me a lot. I teamed up with Dj Deep and Gregory in the early 90s and we started our "A Deep Groove" unit playing house and garage on radio FG 98.2fm and clubs in Paris. I always wanted to produce but never got the chance and the time to focus on it then. When I went back to Tokyo after my university studies in 1995, this is when I said to myself that I want to live by doing music. My very good friend a well known hip hop DJ in Tokyo back then I was working with for the Mr. Bongo disorient label gave me my first opportunity to produce. My first experience was a remix of a Ashley Beedle track "Urbanisation" on disorient.

How did Tokyo Black Star get started and what is the idea behind it?
In the late 90s I met Isao Kumano who was working as an engineer in this big studio in Tokyo. He was in charge of a dance music radio show on a Japanese digital TV channel. We became close and we started to work together. One of our first record was a remix of a track by Big Moses on a new sub-label of Soundmen on Wax. Kerri Chandler was part of the label and was in Tokyo then. He listened to the mix with us, he liked it very much and he was joking and calling me Tokyo Black Star because he knew that I loved champagne referring to "Black Star champagne"! The remix we did together was called then "Tokyo Black Star Dub". We liked the name Tokyo Black Star! It had lots of meanings. Tokyo Black Star is the collaboration project of Isao Kumano and myself.

How does the creative process work between yourself and Isao Kumano?
Isao and I work together in his studio in Tokyo every time I am back in Japan. Isao is at the control of the technical aspect of things, I have more of a direction role but we do play and make everything together from scratch to finish.

What is the concept or theme behind the upcoming Tokyo Black Star album on Innervisions?
One of the main idea behind Tokyo Black Star is to revive within people their imagination and the richness of their heart through our music. We consider ourselves as artists. We have collaborated on the album with the NYC based Japanese painter Tomokazu Matzuyama for the artwork. The album is going to come up as a special CD package which will look like an art book. "Black Ships" is somehow our nonfiction travel diary for those 3 past years, and at the same time is is a fiction of traveling through the world of imagination.

How did your relationship with Innervisions begin?
My relationship with Innervisions started before Innervisions existed. I met Dixon on the Bossa Tres Jazz project I worked on around 1999. We became close to each other. Dixon was visiting NYC in 2003 and I gave him a CD-R of our new track "Blade Dancer". I wanted to release it on Sonar Kollektiv. He emailed me straight away saying that he loved the track and that he wanted to release it on Sonar. Finally after more than a year, Dixon decided to start his own label Innervisions and release it as our 1st and as Innervisions' 1st release!

I know you also do some interesting work outside of DJing and producing. What other projects have you worked on recently?
I am working closely recently with the fashion brand Y-3. I help them for fashion show and I do the music of their stores worldwide. I do a lot of coordination work too between Paris, New York and Tokyo connecting artists, labels to each other for special projects. I translated 3 years ago Laurent Garnier's book "Electrochoc" from French to Japanese which was a huge project.

What can we lookout for in the near future from yourself and Tokyo Black Star?

Our first album "Black Ships" is coming out worldwide through Innervisions on March 30th. We are so looking forward to it! This is a big priority for us. We are thinking to start a Dj/live performance for the release of the album sometime this year. I hope I will be able to visit your beautiful country Canada very soon!

Tokyo Black Star's "Bit Commander ep" is now available through Juno on vinyl here and download here.